In two weeks, a Colorado company has scored a pair of interplanetary space victories.
First, it gently landed a spacecraft in a precise location on Mars. Then it achieved an unprecedented encounter with an asteroid, close enough to grab some of its dirt and bring it back to Earth.
These missions aim to provide new information about some of the most fundamental mysteries of life on our planet.
For one, how did water get here?
At Lockheed Martin, a Littleton space exploration company built above the cliffs of Waterton Canyon, such questions lie at the heart of its growing list of space voyages.
Company spokesman Gary Napier calls his employer the top spacecraft maker for Mars voyages.
“We’ve been on every NASA mission to Mars — 21,” he said. “Of those 21, we built 11 of the full spacecraft.”
As space exploration has grown, so has the importance of the aerospace industry to Colorado.
According to the Colorado Space Coalition, the state now ranks first in the nation in its concentration of private aerospace employment, boasts the second largest aerospace economy and ranks third in NASA prime contracts.
In total, the industry brings an estimated $15 billion into the state economy.
Lockheed’s asteroid encounter is the first of its kind. It began with a spacecraft pulling up beside a big rock named Bennu, whose diameter is roughly the height of the Empire State Building, and staying beside it in orbit.
Ultimately, an arm attached to the spacecraft will try to take a sample of Bennu’s surface, bring it back to Earth and drop it safely in the Utah desert.
Because asteroids are presumed to have changed little since the solar system formed billions of years ago, “We want to actually learn quite a bit” from Bennu, said Beau Bierhaus, senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin. “We want to go back to the materials that led to the formation of Earth.”
Bierhaus likens the materials of Earth, which has a thin crust and extremely hot core, to baked cookies coming out of an oven. You can’t identify the original ingredients any longer.
Scientists also will be hunting for clues from the asteroid mission, known as OSIRIS-REx, to the mysterious origins of water on Earth.
Maybe the icy tails of a comet first delivered it. Maybe a big asteroid brought it.
Maybe it lay hidden all along in the rocks of a seemingly hot, lifeless planet.
“OSIRIS is going to try to help answer that question,” Bierhaus said. “To know the early Earth, we’ve got to go look at Bennu.”
On the engineering side, Beth Buck, Lockheed’s manager of deep space mission operations, displays her sense of humor on her door.
“I’m a Lockheed Martian,” the sign reads.
In the latest Mars mission, scientists wanted more than a safe landing. For better viewing, they also wanted the spacecraft to touch down in a particular area flat as a parking lot.
Buck compared that to “trying to kick a field goal to the moon and making it.”
As a prime contractor, Lockheed Martin plays multiple roles in space missions, she said. It designs, builds, tests and operates spacecraft.
Already the Mars lander, known as InSight, has achieved a historic first. It detected and recorded the eerie sounds of Martian winds blowing across the planet’s desert.
One purpose of the latest Mars landing is studying Mars quakes, a possible clue to its evolution
Another goal is to “hammer down” into Mars and study the subsurface, Buck said.
Once, scientists believe, Mars had a thicker atmosphere and lots of surface water. What happened?
All these landings, of course, presage the first human attempt to visit Mars. That could occur in the mid-2030s and would likely be an orbital flight, not a chance to set foot on the planet.
In any case, it would require a crew willing to subsist on dehydrated food for a long time
NASA can get a spacecraft to the moon and back in a week. A Mars voyage would last three years.
“We’ve been on
every NASA mission to Mars — 21. Of those 21, we built 11 of the full spacecraft.” Gary Napier, spokesman
for Lockheed Martin